On the face of it, Ireland appears to be acting on climate change. Last year it appointed its first ever “climate action minister”, and in June it outlawed onshore fracking. What’s more, the telegenic new taoiseach Leo Varadkar dedicated much of the first day of his Cabinet retreat to discussing climate change.
Last week Varadkar introduced Ireland’s first national mitigation plan (NMP) in more than a decade, and said that addressing climate change would “require fundamental societal transformation and, more immediately, allocation of resources and sustained policy change.” If success could be measured simply by repetition – the word “sustainable” appears no fewer than 110 times in the NMP – Ireland would undoubtedly be among the world’s leading countries.
But looks can be deceiving. The promised “fundamental societal transformation” turns out to be a soothing combination of words entirely lacking in substance.
The climate action minister, Denis Naughten, glossed over the gaping holes and staggering lack of ambition in the NMP by declaring it a “living document”, with the vague understanding that it will, zombie-like, spring to life at some point closer to 2050.
Naughten’s discomfort in media interviews was obvious. Ireland was, he stressed, “playing catch-up” and perhaps shouldn’t be judged too harshly. Naughten is adamant that the government doesn’t want to be prescriptive on how to hit our targets. But in practice, this translates into ducking the tough but necessary near-term decisions.
Naughten recently pleaded in Brussels that the 2020 targets (of a 20% emissions cut compared with 2005) that Ireland chose to sign up to are too onerous, and threatening to delay EU-wide implementation of the Paris accord. By 2020 Ireland will only have achieved a paltry 5-6% reduction in emissions, with greenhouse gases from transport and agriculture actually rising. The spectre of serious EU fines looms ever closer.
Per capita, Ireland’s emissions are the third highest in the EU, and it is one of only four EU states (alongside Belgium, Luxembourg and Austria) expected to miss its 2020 targets. Things may be about to get a lot worse. With no public announcement, on 11 July Naughten’s department issued a licence permitting oil drilling on the Porcupine Bank off Ireland’s west coast.
Some 5bn barrels of offshore oil may be recoverable, which, when burned, would release 1.5bn tonnes of CO2 – the equivalent of more than a quarter of a century of Ireland’s current total emissions from all sectors.
Irrespective of whose balance sheet this oil ends up on, issuing such a licence is “complete doublespeak” and shows “inconsistency and incompetence”, according to Green party senator, Grace O’Sullivan.
While the Porcupine Bank oilfield presents a prickly political problem for a government claiming to take its climate obligations seriously, its real challenges are closer to home; first, in the transport sector where a lack of strategic planning means emissions are set to spiral by 14-16% by 2020.
Second, government agriculture strategy is set out in Food Wise 2025, a policy document unashamedly drafted not by civil servants but by the food industry. By 2020, agriculture will account for 45% of Ireland’s total emissions outside the emissions trading scheme. The government continues to argue that Ireland’s largely grass-based beef and dairy sector is uniquely climate-friendly and so should not be discouraged.
However, a study commissioned by the European parliament earlier this year severely dented this narrative, as it found Ireland had the highest level of greenhouse gas emissions per euro of agricultural output in the entire EU.
Ireland’s claim to be a “food island” was further undermined by UN data for 2011, which found it to be a net importer of food calories since 2000. Rather than feeding the world, Ireland isn’t even feeding itself. In fact, most Irish beef farmers are losing money, and only remain afloat due to EU subsidies.
Awkward questions posed by domestic NGOs about the impossibility of Ireland meeting its EU-mandated emissions targets as long as the agriculture sector enjoys an emissions “free pass” are met with an increasingly tetchy official response. The agriculture minister, Michael Creed, recently argued that critics of farming emissions were doing a “huge disservice” to the country.
Other parts of the industry have taken it a step further, and teamed up to actively promote a new Irish climate denial group. It flew in guest speakers including Richard Lindzen and William Happer this summer to spread doubt on climate science. This denier messaging was then uncritically reported by the farming press.
When it comes to a coherent climate policy, Ireland’s turns out to be more greenwash than green.